[Milton-L] Re: porno vs. art?

Jesse Swan jesse.swan at uni.edu
Thu Nov 24 16:00:38 EST 2005

Comparing Eve to Dame Alisoun's old hag seems apropos, since it represents 
the limiting way Carol Barton wishes to cast interpretations and the wider 
ways others are promoting.

The old hag in Chaucer's tale is, importantly, Dame Alisoun's and Dame 
Alisoun is Chaucer's.  The good wife of the resort town known for people 
disrobing and bathing themselves (be the people nude or naked upon such 
disrobing may be up for interpretation, I suppose) interprets her old hag's 
character and the new couple's relationship very differently from the way 
Carol Barton does:  Alisoun explains as she exclaims,

   And thus they lyve unto hir lyves ende
In parfit joye; and Jhesu Crist us sende
Housbondes meeke, yonge, and fressh abedde,
And grace t'overbyde hem that we wedde;
And eek I praye Jhesu shorte hir lyves
That noght wol be governed by hir wyves;
And olde and angry nygardes of dispence,
God sende hem soone verray pestilence!

Surely, the genre of the tale Alisoun tells suggests Carol Barton's 
interpretation.  However, Chaucer's work suggests much more, in part by 
drawing on the genre of the tale to provide much of the humorous 
characterization of Alisoun:  the contrast dramatically shows her unable to 
realize what she's saying, and only able to understand what she says as 
supporting what she wants.  Experience tells Alisoun that everyone has his 
or her own interpretation, as it tells us that characters such as Alisoun 
cannot understand the fullness of what they say and feel they know, never 
mind what others say and know.

Milton is at least as capable as Chaucer in casting multiple suggestions 
simultaneously in the service of suggesting a complex, always interrelated 
sense of existence.  In this way, Eve is never just herself, even when 
gazing upon her reflection, anymore than the old hag is just herself, even 
when gazing on her own presumed hideousness when watching her young knight's 
response to her advances.  In both the works of Milton and Chaucer, there 
are authors and there are self-consciously employed complex literary and 
theological contexts for the authors and their stories.


Jesse G. Swan, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Department of English Language and Literature
University of Northern Iowa
Cedar Falls, Iowa 50614-0502

----- Original Message ----- 
From: "Carol Barton" <cbartonphd at earthlink.net>
To: "John Milton Discussion List" <milton-l at lists.richmond.edu>
Sent: Thursday, November 24, 2005 3:12 PM
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] Re: porno vs. art?

> Jeffery Hodges writes, "And here's where I'd disagree somewhat with Carol.
> Satan's flattery is effective. His words make their way into her heart
> because they elevate her, precisely the promise offered in the temptation
> scene as Satan's words begin to have their effect. The fruit is offered as
> the solution: This will elevate you, Eve, to goddess."
> I think this is a matter of semantics, Jeffery: I don't think she cares
> about being "Queen of the Universe" or a _Sports Illustrated_ cover
> model--and it isn't figurative "flattery" that will elevate her to a 
> station
> above her present one--but, according to the serpent, the power of the
> Fruit. I think it's important to see the Great Chain of Being in the
> backdrop: just like Malvolio in _Twelfth Night_, she is reaching beyond 
> the
> proper limits of her grasp, only here, the stakes are much higher, and the
> consequences far more dire. The (anti)ethical claim that everyone has his 
> or
> her price--that if you push the right "button," promise what the other
> desires most, you will have him or her in your power--applies here. If all
> the serpent offered were flattery, Eve wouldn't fall: she doesn't want to 
> be
> worshipped sexually, she wants to be EQUAL to Adam intellectually--and
> that's what the Fruit (according to the serpent) will give her: the
> intelligence of the angels.
> In this regard, I see her as very close to Dame Alisoun's old hag in the 
> Wyf
> of Bath's Tale: she doesn't want to dominate the man who loves her, but 
> she
> wants to be loved for her intelligence, her capabilities, her spirit, and
> her soul--not her outside . . . and above all, she wants not to be "the
> little woman"--she wants her voice to have equal weight with his--"for
> inferior, who is free?" If the analogy will help (though it's not one I
> like), Eve is the English people under Charles I: no matter what they 
> think
> or want, he is the king, and he will do with their lives as he pleases 
> (even
> take them, if he chooses). Charles insisted that he loved his people, and
> maybe, after his fashion, he did: but being loved, even adored, is not the
> same thing as being free--sometimes, it's the opposite (ask any bird in a
> gilded cage). Eve wants to be a person in her own right, not an appendage 
> of
> Adam, and she wants to have a say in her destiny. The Fruit promises her
> that--in the serpent's voice--and that's the only suasion she hears.
> Best to all,
> Carol Barton
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